“Love is not intuitive when living in dark places,
Patience isn’t natural where there is suffering.”
From the Urban Neighbours of Hope video
“Our natural instinct is to run away from suffering, from those deep dark places. It’s not intuitive to stay. That takes something supernatural that God does in our hearts,” says Ash Barker. The softly spoken Australian, along with his wife, Angi and three children, know a little bit about what it means to stay put in a place of suffering. For the past 10 years he has lived in Klong Toey, Bangok’s largest slum. Not on the edge of it, not across the road in an air conditioned, four bedroom apartment but right, slap, bang in the heart of the densely packed area bordering the Chao Phraya river.
Ash explains that first thing in the morning, it can be quite pleasant; the anticipation of a new day, the sun rising, the friendliness of the children from his football club chatting to him as he makes his way to the community centre he runs. But by lunch time, it’s a different story; the heat has reached unbearable levels, the stench of garbage and sewage is rising, and inside the homes of many of the 100,000 residents packed into 2sqm, individual tragedies begin to surface. He freely admits it’s a tough place to live.
Aidain, Ash’s son who’s now eight years old, was born in the slum; they have also adopted Film (pronounced ‘Fim’), seven years old, who had been trafficked and abandoned. Ash’s oldest daughter, Amy, has found her experiences have got harder as she has grown older: “When we first moved here, Amy was five and everything was a big adventure. There were elephants coming down the road and monkeys in people’s houses. She had loads of friends in the slum. Now she’s 15. A lot of her friends have had to leave the community because of organised crime or prostitution. They’ve had babies, none of them are still at school.”
Amy attends an international school which she won a scholarship to. Here, the father of one of her friends collects cars for a hobby. Although still only a teenager, Amy has seen more of the world’s extremes and injustice than most double her age. “I wanted my children to see the way the world really is, to see a faith that is really active and hopefully courageous.”
Ash admits that the slum is a place of amazing creativity and community. “If anything happened to one of my kids, there are always a hundred eyes watching them. I’d be more concerned if we were living in London where you’re anonymous.” But living in Klong Toey is every bit as heartbreaking as you might imagine.
“There’s phenomenal disease, mental health issues, drug and alcohol addictions, terrible living conditions.” He describes a time when during the floods, his neighbour’s sewage came up and into his own house.
The inhabitants of the slum are officially a squatter community and so are offered no protection from the law. As the land is owned by the Port Authority of Thailand, it is impossible to build or develop on it, even if residents earn enough money to do so. Aid and development industries struggle in slums as they are unable to build institutions like schools, hospitals or churches. Anything can be knocked down tomorrow which means fundraising is problematic – there are no guarantees financial investments will be long lasting.
Yet, Ash’s smile is infectious. This is a man who has learnt to love from his gut – in grief, frustration and bewilderment.
“At times it’s overwhelming, you can either keep opening yourself up, when you just cry a lot or your heart gets hard. You can think ‘oh that’s just another person dying of AIDS, just another girl who’s got pregnant by her dad and is having an abortion.’ You don’t feel anything anymore and that’s more dangerous. That’s when I have to remind myself, that I don’t have enough love but God does.”
There have been some great success stories along the way. Taking a preventative approach to the alleviation of poverty, the Barkers have set up a pre-school, football clubs and local businesses. Several years ago, Angi noticed Saiyuud Diwong, nicknamed Poo, a local with an incredible talent for cooking. Everyone loved her food which she sold on the street but due to the rising price of rice, she was getting herself further into debt. Angi worked closely with Poo encouraging her to set up a cooking school for tourists. Cooking with Poo has ranked as number one on Trip Advisor’s list of things to do inBangkok and her book has now sold 10,000 copies.
“The definition of poverty is the lack of freedom to live as God intends.” Ash explains that the real barrier to overcome is the internalising of poverty, where people do not believe they are good enough because of the circumstances they have grown up in. He wonders what would have happened to Poo if they hadn’t been there.
Ash concedes that for those us living in the majority world, there is a challenge of how we build community: “When I walk out of my door in Klong Toey, I see the needs all around me. It’s more hidden in the West. Do you see the people in poverty living around you? The mental health issues, the lack of education, the joblessness. To see it, not just like a journalist – but to act in a way that actually makes a difference. It’s the classic story of the good Samaritan.
“You have to ask ‘What is God calling us to?” This challenge is the same for us, as it is for Ash. He concludes simply and absolutely, that the call is “to give our lives away”.
Ash has recently published Slum Life Rising; How to enflesh hope within a new urban world. He founded Urban Neighbours of Hope in 1993 and is also the Convener for the newly formed International Society for Urban Mission.